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Before The Scream

Everyone knows Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ – reproduced, copied, re-imagined across the world, the hands gripping the face, the torrid colours, the pain, the emptiness. A painting etched into the mind and into the horrors of the mind.

The Scream has been dubbed the Mona Lisa of modern art, it is one of the most recognisable motifs in all art and is a rock of the expressionist movement. So famous, yet, like many I should imagine, I never knew the image, painted from 1910, is in fact one of five artworks on the theme.

The Scream popping up at this year's Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Such is the depth of feeling within The Scream, you wonder where all that pain and passion came from. Where had this Norwegian derived such emotion to express it so forcefully, so powerfully that it would still be screaming at us today?

Some answers were on show at London’s Courtuald Gallery's exhibition, ‘Edvard Munch- Masterpieces from Bergen’. The show brought together a host of Munch’s early works and gave wonderful insights into the journey that took a young man from delightful paintings of young servants in the morning and Seurat-like dabblings with pointillism to the shores of the distinctive style he is now famed for.

To be honest I am not sure, and have never been, of what I make of The Scream. I get it, I appreciate its importance not just to art but its wider social impact, but I don’t know if I have ever liked it. To me, a bit like George Elliot’s Middlemarch, you know it’s great and all that but actually reading it is a turn-off.

So, I didn’t know what to expect from the Courtauld show, but was intrigued to find out as I was to see the gallery’s new space and layout after its renovations. And, I am very happy to say that both were extremely enjoyable.

The early Munch’s were packed into a couple of rooms and oozed intensity. Born in 1863, these paintings date from the 1880s into the 90s and trail the artist’s developing talent and eye from charming domestic scenes to the origins of his more emotionally filled ideas that would become his signature.

Morning (1884) is light years from The Scream but reveals the young Munch’s technical skill – a lovely, natural capture of a young servant girl sitting on her bed anticipating the day. Pehaps it especially took my eye because it reminded me of a close friend, but there is grace, poise and sympathy here proving that there was so much to come from the painter.

I love the art of Seurat and Munch aped his style in a Bergen street scene, Spring Day on Karl Johan - the pretty trees and buildings, the dazzling parasols.

Then quickly the subject matter and the brightness faded into much more serious work – a dejected lover on the beach, Munch’s sister alone and musing on the shore, a family death. All the ingredients that would one day bring us The Scream.

The Courtauld exhibition was a revealing study of a young artist’s journey of personal discovery and development. We all know The Scream, or think we do, but this show helped you understand the early mind and motivations of the man who created it.

The Courtauld Gallery -

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